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Bilingualism, Aging, and Becoming Smarter
April 1, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama
The Benefits of Bilingualism
Recently, New York Times writer Yudhuit Bhattacharjee reported on the positive benefits of speaking two languages (see above Web site). Aside from simply increasing the number of people in the world that one can communicate with, he wrote: “Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”
It is a startling, stunning discovery. This finding over-turns 20th century U.S. educators and government policy makers who took the other path. That is, the educators who drafted U.S. school curricula always assumed that the vocabulary and grammar rules of two languages led to students who score lower in tests and have a lesser chance of succeeding in society. The New York Times reporter summarizes: “Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.”
But researchers have shown that indeed, sometimes knowing two languages makes the brain work a bit harder, since one is excluding another language that is harbored in a corner of one's brain (thousands of different words co-exist side-by-side) when speaking one (I know tri- or quadri-lingual people, but often the languages are related, like Romance Languages like English-Portuguese-Italian, not, say, Mandarin-isiXhosa-Hawaiian).
Bilingualism is extra work for the brain that is analogous to walking a bit faster during physical exercise or working out in more ways, involving arms, hips, legs, so the body is in better shape in the long-term. (The article mentions test findings where bilingual pre-schoolers excelling in mental games over monolingual children.)
Bilingual people have a heightened sense of the “environment”, switching to one language for one speaker, another for a different speaker, listening intently for clues, analyzing words in one language quicker, then responding (I have had practice in simultaneous interpreting, and know why bilingual speakers find speaking two languages to be easy, but interpreting to be challenging, since bilingual speakers desire to choose the most appropriate word in the “other” language, but sometimes a word does not exist in the other language, hence you have to “frame” a word using words that only approximate the meaning, so this adds more words in interpreting). And this trait is developed in the brain when one learns another language later than in baby/childhood, so it is not a “hard-wired” brain, but learn-able, plastic, developing. Ultimately, bilingualism strengthens the underlying “attention span” or “focus” skill in the brain.
The more fascinating trials have occurred with aged bilingual speakers. The onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease were documented to come later for bilingual people. In fact, the article reported that “the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset”.
These findings are remarkable and have profound implications not only for education, but for society in the long-term (longer, uninterrupted jobs/contributions to society, fewer cases that impact health programs, nursing, medicines, and hospitals -- all contributing to lower health insurance fees).
For example, if through a huge island-wide community Hawaiian language teaching program (maybe $2 Million investment annually) Maui could achieve a target of a Hawaiian-English bilingual group – about 50,000 people -- (objective: one in four Mauians can converse in Hawaiian – according to the New York Times article, bilingual Mauians are slightly smarter, and perhaps this leads to better choices in diet, exercise, balanced family life) in its island population by 2022 (a 20-year program with a projected 200,000 residents, with a growing retiree/elderly group), would that mean a hypothetical 15% drop in early-onset dementia/Alzheimer’s disease? And will that drop correlate to a hospital/treatment annual savings of $30 million (a hypothetical figure, just to make a point) annually? And society's benefits would be based on a relatively small investment.
Imagine Mauians meeting at Kahului’s Maui Mall or along Front Street in Lahaina and speaking Hawaiian.* Hundreds of young people, graduates from Hawaiian immersion schools, would be hired to teach Hawaiian at schools, government offices, malls, churches, temples, beaches, hotels, condos, restaurants, and even to residents waiting patiently at the Maui County motor vehicle licensing offices.
There are many other great reasons for transforming an island society back to our mid-Pacific linguistic roots, but here is one more, since age affects everyone, regardless of ethnicity or culture or language(s).
*I can attest that my bilingual father was in fine mental shape at nearly 90. Also, in his last months before his passing he reverted more to Japanese, his first language. He read books in both English and Japanese, too.)
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